Quarter of Iraq Vets Have Health Problems

A new survey reveals that more than a quarter of Iraq War vets have physical or psychological ailments.

1 in 4 Iraq vets ailing on return (USA Today, p. 1)

More than one in four U.S. troops have come home from the Iraq war with health problems that require medical or mental health treatment, according to the Pentagon’s first detailed screening of servicemembers leaving a war zone. Almost 1,700 servicemembers returning from the war this year said they harbored thoughts of hurting themselves or that they would be better off dead. More than 250 said they had such thoughts “a lot.” Nearly 20,000 reported nightmares or unwanted war recollections; more than 3,700 said they had concerns that they might “hurt or lose control” with someone else.

These survey results, which have not been publicly released, were provided to USA TODAY by the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. They offer a window on the war and how the ongoing insurgency has added to the strain on troops.

Overall, since the war began, about 28% of Iraq veterans — about 50,000 servicemembers this year alone — returned with problems ranging from lingering battle wounds to toothaches, from suicidal thoughts to strained marriages. The figure dwarfs the Pentagon’s official Iraq casualty count: 1,971 U.S. troops dead and 15,220 wounded as of Tuesday.

A greater percentage of soldiers and Marines surveyed in 2004-05 said they felt in “great danger” of being killed than said so in 2003, after a more conventional phase of fighting. Twice as many surveyed in 2004-05 had fired a weapon in combat.

A story linked in the sidebar explains much of this “increase” in psychological wounds:

Troops screened as never before

Pentagon efforts to screen troops for medical and psychological problems before and after they go to war — and in the months after they return home — could make the Iraq war veteran the most scrutinized fighter in American history. “They are collecting data before and after, and then doing follow-up. That’s amazing,” says Joseph Boscarino, a Vietnam War veteran and scientist at the New York Academy of Medicine who does research on post-traumatic stress disorder. “That was never done before. It was always ad hoc.”

The screening began in 1997. When it was expanded in 2003, William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, testified before Congress that it was necessary to avoid the kind of health problems that had occurred in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Thousands of returning veterans of that conflict complained of ailments ranging from memory loss to respiratory problems. “That was a big problem in the Gulf War,” Winkenwerder testified. “We really didn’t know the baseline health status of people, so it was very difficult to compare when they came back as to what their status had been before they left.” The current screening before and after deployment is designed to correct that, Winkenwerder said.

War, as Sherman famously noted, is hell. It is likely much worse in some ways now than in Sherman’s day. As modern society has made us more comfortable and less vulnerable to the hardships of life, it has made killing much more efficient. So a modern American soldier goes to war having grown up sheltered from such brutalities as killing his own food and experiences, in most cases, the sight of blown up bodies for the first time as a grown man.

The Army’s efforts here to take care of its soldiers is laudable, indeed. Change sometimes comes painfully slow in the military. When it happens, though, it is almost always in the right direction.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.